10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #1: Because I can’t marry the man I love

The number one reason why I hate marriage inequality in Australia is because it means that I cannot marry the man who I love.

Me (on the left) and Steven (aka the handsome guy with the sunnies).

Me (on the left) and Steven (aka the handsome guy with the sunnies).

I was half-tempted to leave it at that because, really, what more do I need to say?

There can be few things more beautiful than the desire to celebrate the love that you have for your partner, in front of your family and friends. I want to experience that with Steve, the person I care about most in the world, and who brings me more happiness than I ever thought possible.

At the same time, there can be few things uglier than a Government intervening to tell you “No”, you cannot experience that, simply because of your sexual orientation (or, for others, gender identity or intersex status). Especially when there is absolutely no legitimate reason why the Marriage Act 1961 should discriminate against LGBTI-inclusive couples, something that is incredibly frustrating, to Steve and me, and to the thousands of other Australian couples in the same situation.

Obviously, the issue of marriage equality is very personal for all of the people that it directly affects. And, in that, I am no different. It does affect me personally and, as the people closest in my life can attest (and as this countdown has made exceptionally clear) I take its denial very personally.

How could I not? When you celebrate wedding after wedding, of your sister, and your brother, and your cousins, and your partner’s extended family, and your friends and his friends as well, and you just want to do the same, yet you cannot because 139 Senators and Members of the House of Representatives back in September 2012 decided that you are ‘unworthy’ simply because you’re gay, well, how could that not feel like a knife right through your heart?

In fact, there are very few contemporary public policy issues for which the old maxim – that the personal is political – could be more accurate. The recognition of our relationships is obviously immensely personal, and it is impossible to deny that whether they are recognised or not, or recognised but with a lesser value than cisgender heterosexual relationships, is inherently political.

That particular saying works the other way, too. The position that each of our parliamentarians adopts on this political issue reflects something profound about who they are as a person as well.

And I’m not just talking about the Cory Bernardis or Helen Polleys of this world, either – Senators who thought it appropriate to link the prospect of marriage equality with bestiality and the Stolen Generation, respectively – although their parliamentary speeches certainly revealed their utter contempt for LGBTI Australians.

I am talking about the MPs who might not say anything ‘overtly’ homophobic during Parliamentary debates about marriage, but who cast their vote against equality nonetheless. In doing so, they indicate that they choose discrimination and inequality over love and inclusion. They stand up against the idea that all Australians deserve equal treatment under the law, instead supporting the notion that some people are ‘more equal’ than others.

Those who vote against marriage equality devalue our relationships, telling us that they are less worthy of recognition than those of other people. And they devalue us as individuals too, subtly (or in some cases, not so subtly) sending the signal that we are less than full citizens of our own country. Even if they do not say the words, their position reveals, loud and clear, that they believe LGBTI people are – and should be – second class.

At its most personal, an MP who votes against marriage equality is saying that they themselves are more deserving of certain rights, that their own relationships are more worthy of recognition, that they as individuals are simply better than LGBTI Australians.

To them I say, “How dare you”. How dare you suggest that, because I am gay and you are heterosexual, you are more deserving of certain rights than I am. And how dare you deny us the rights that you currently enjoy (whether you choose to exercise them or not) simply because we are in a same-sex relationship and you are not.

The love that Steve and I share is not better or worse, more valuable or less valuable, or more deserving or less deserving, than the love between cisgender heterosexual couples. It’s all just love. The law should not make a distinction between the love that Steve and I have for each other, and that between my sister and her husband, or my brother and his wife.

Sadly, because of the amendments made under the Howard Government in August 2004, and the failure of our MPs since then to remedy this discrimination, the law does make such a distinction.

Today, Wednesday 13 August 2014, those amendments, that legal distinction, this ongoing and unjustified discrimination against LGBTI Australians, ‘celebrates’ its own ten year anniversary.

The traditional gift for a ten-year wedding anniversary is tin. I’m sure you’ll forgive me for not wanting to buy anything special to mark the occasion.

What I will do, what I feel compelled to do on this day, is say to all of those MPs who voted against equality in 2004, and continue to do so now, you truly are the tin men and tin women of Australian politics. You have forgotten that you have hearts, or, at the very least, you have forgotten how to use them. Indeed, it seems you have forgotten what hearts are even there for.

Well, now is the time to rediscover their purpose. And now is also the time to rediscover your purpose as our elected representatives – that it is your responsibility to act for the betterment of Australia, and the welfare of its people, all of its people, not just the cisgender heterosexual ones.

On this, the 10th anniversary of the ban, it’s time to support marriage equality, and in so doing to support the full and equal citizenship of all Australians, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. If you do, if you finally agree to pass marriage equality, then you should rest assured that nothing bad will happen. The sky will not fall in. There will be no negative consequences whatsoever.

The only outcome will be overwhelmingly positive. Thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of couples will finally be able to express their love and commitment in front of their family and friends. Couples like Steve and me. We are ready and waiting to say those two small words to each other, “I do”. We just need you to say two other words first, “You can.”

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10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #2: Because we’ve been waiting so damn long

Updated 12 August 2016:

The twelve year anniversary of Australia’s ban on marriage equality is now only 24 hours away. Unfortunately, the long-awaited repeal of the ban is still some time off.

The best-case scenario: Malcolm Turnbull and his Liberal-National Government abandon their unnecessary, wasteful and harmful plebiscite, hold a free vote and marriage equality becomes law before the 13th anniversary. Alternatively, we could see marriage equality passed later this term, after the plebiscite has wreaked its havoc on young and vulnerable LGBTI people. We could even see marriage equality delayed beyond this term, until sometime in the 2020s (yes, you read that right – 2020s).

No matter when it (eventually) happens, there will be thousands upon thousands of Australian LGBTI-inclusive couples who have been waiting, and waiting, and then waiting some more, simply to exercise the same rights that our cisgender heterosexual counterparts enjoy without question. And, to me at least, the waiting itself has become both seemingly interminable, and insufferable.

Australian Marriage Equality effectively tapped into that sentiment with one of its main campaigns of 2014, with stories and images of couples with the ‘We’re Waiting’ message. That campaign was both an accurate reflection of the feelings of many within the LGBTI community, and a reminder to decision-makers that this policy choice is not abstract, but affects ‘real people’ in all-too-real ways [Alas, two years later that wait continues].

It is the human element of the ongoing ban, the costs of being forced to wait, that I want to concentrate on here. Because the delay of being able to get married, for years or even decades, carries with it very real consequences for the couples involved.

The first consequence is that it directly affects the ability of couples to celebrate their wedding with all of the family members and friends who they would like to be there for their special day. For those couples that do not choose to travel overseas (which itself obviously limits who is able to attend), by forcing LGBTI-inclusive couples to wait to marry within Australia the Parliament is effectively interfering with the ‘guest list’ of many couples.

From Steve and my perspective, as I have written before, we are both very conscious of the fact that, the longer the ban on marriage equality goes on, the less likely it is we will be able to have our remaining grandmothers there for the occasion (either for reasons of ill-health, or worse). They certainly could have been there had we been married four or five years ago (ie after an engagement of 12 or 24 months), but even today it is becoming doubtful [In 2016, it is now clear my grandmother won’t be able to travel to our wedding due to declining health].

I often imagine how ‘traditional marriage’ or ‘family values’ or even ‘small government’ campaigners would react if the Commonwealth Parliament intervened to tell them who they could, or could not, invite to their wedding. I suspect they would probably have a pretty spectacular hissy fit. And yet that is exactly what they are seeking to impose on us – stealing from us our ability to celebrate our weddings with who we choose.

The second consequence is another ‘theft’, but the effects of it won’t become apparent for most of us for many years, long after the ban on marriage equality is lifted. And that is they are stealing from us future ‘significant’ wedding anniversaries. Because, the longer our entry to marriage is delayed, the less likely it is that current LGBTI-inclusive couples will reach our 60th, 50th or even 40th or 30th wedding anniversaries.

Now, to some that might seem like a petty argument. After all, we will still have ‘anniversaries’ for the significant events of our relationships (for example, Tuesday was the 8th anniversary of when Steve and I first met, and we celebrated the occasion).

But it is impossible to deny that significant cultural value is still placed on long-lasting marriages, perhaps even an increasing value when so many marriages do not last that long (for whatever reason). How many of us experience an ‘awww, that’s sweet’ moment when we see the 60th or 50th wedding anniversaries of older couples, either family members or friends, or even reported on the news?

Well, far fewer of our relationships will reach those moments in the decades to come because of the actions of Commonwealth parliamentarians in 2004, 2012 and today. Once again, imagine the outcry from ‘traditional marriage’ (aka anti-LGBTI equality) campaigners if the Government were to intervene to effectively steal those anniversaries from them. They need to be reminded that it is just as unacceptable when it is done to LGBTI Australians.

However, it is the third consequence, yet another theft, which is the most offensive, and most objectionable. And that is that there are countless couples who wanted to marry but where one or both have died since the original ban on equality was introduced in 2004, and many more who will continue to die before being able to wed while this homophobic discrimination remains in place.

These are couples who have had the right to marry stolen from them, now and for all time, merely because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. For most, they grew up at a time when homosexuality was criminalised, and when trans and intersex people were ‘invisibilised’ and subject to the worst forms of abuse, but who have then suffered one final indignity at the hands of the Australian Government – the denial of the equal recognition of their relationships during their lifetimes.

The worst thing, the most frustrating part, about this entire situation is that everyone knows marriage equality is inevitable. I know it. You know it. Julia Gillard knew it. Tony Abbott knew it. Malcolm Turnbull does too – even if he won’t grant the free vote to make it happen. In fact, all MPs, certainly since 2011 or 2012, if not before, must have recognised that marriage equality will eventually be passed in Australia, and that the only remaining question is whether that happens now, or in five or even ten years time.

And, while there is absolutely nothing that is ‘gained’ from this delay, as I have shown above there is plenty that is lost, not least of which is the undeniable loss of those couples who were never able, and will never be able, to wed.

Which makes the ongoing failure of Commonwealth Parliamentarians to pass marriage equality one of the most petty and vindictive acts – or omissions – in recent political history.

It is, frankly, unforgiveable that our MPs are not only stubbornly opposing what is right, and standing firm against the overwhelming tide of history and progress, they are rejecting the rights of Australian couples, including members of their own electorates, when they know in their hearts that all they are doing is delaying the inevitable, and making those couples pay the cost in the meantime.

This outcome, the price that is being paid by couples around the country because of this interminable ‘wait’, is definitely one of the things I hate most about marriage inequality.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #3: Because it makes attending weddings a bittersweet experience

Weddings are supposed to be joyous occasions, a celebration of two people coming together to express their love and commitment to each other in front of their family members and friends. If ever an event was meant to provoke happiness – pure, unambiguous happiness – surely a wedding would be it.

But, when I go to weddings I cannot help but find them to be bittersweet. The joy of the ceremony, and my happiness for the couple involved, is tempered by sadness at the knowledge that I, and the man who I love, currently cannot participate in the exact same ritual, solely because of our sexual orientation.

Obviously, the main source of this frustration is the legislative ban on marriage equality, introduced by the Howard Liberal-National Government in 2004 (an event which itself celebrates its ‘tin’ anniversary next week), and perpetuated by his successors including Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott.

However, this hurt and anger is compounded by the section of the wedding ceremony where the celebrant is compelled to read out the following:

“I am duly authorised by law to solemnise marriages according to law. Before you are joined in marriage in my presence and in the presence of these witnesses, I am to remind you of the solemn and binding nature of the relationship into which you are now about to enter.

Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” (emphasis added).

Talk about rubbing salt into the wound. Section 46(1) of the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) makes it clear that these words must be read out by the celebrant (although, bizarrely enough, only by civil celebrants – ministers of religion for a recognised denomination are exempted from this requirement).

The Guidelines on the Marriage Act 1961 for Marriage Celebrants also confirm that, while there is some scope to make minor variations to the first two sentences above, there is no scope to change the third. Specifically:

• “do not replace ‘man’ and ‘woman’ with ‘people’ or ‘persons’. This could signify the marriage of two people of the same sex which is specifically excluded by the definition.

• do not change the first part of the sentence to read: “Marriage as most of us understand it is…” (from page 75 of the Guidelines).

It is appalling that there is this level of government interference into something so personal, on what is supposed to be a special, some might say unique, day for the couple involved (and especially galling that it is supported by Australian conservatives who like to proclaim their support for ‘small government’).

It is even more appalling that LGBTI Australians, and indeed all people who support equality irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, must sit through this recitation each and every time they simply wish to attend the wedding of their family members or friends.

I must admit that, at the last few weddings I have been to, this recitation, together with the fact that – more than four years into Steve and my engagement – there is still so little sign we will be able to marry in our own country any time soon, really got me down.

At one of these receptions, I recall looking up at my fiancé and, from the expression on his face, seeing that he felt exactly the same way at exactly the same moment. I don’t know if that makes it better or worse – to feel comfort in the fact that someone so close shares that burden with you, or to feel anger that the government makes the person who you care about most in the world experience pain. Actually, that’s not true, it’s definitely the latter.

And I’m sure that we’re not the only LGBTI-inclusive couple, or LGBTI individuals, who experience these emotions at weddings, who are hurt by the continuing rejection of our own love as equal, and who resent, bitterly at times, that the ban on marriage equality has transformed joyous occasions into bittersweet affairs.

This is not to say the ban doesn’t affect cisgender heterosexual people too, it does. It has become increasingly common for couples who are getting married and who value their LGBTI family members and friends, or who simply reject the discrimination against LGBTI relationships contained in the Marriage Act 1961, to either say themselves, or have their celebrant say, that they support the right of all couples to marry.

In fact, this ‘disclaimer’, usually read out before the abhorrent words of section 46(1), has become so commonplace that it has almost become modern wedding etiquette itself.

And it is truly lovely that so many people have chosen to do so. On a day that is marked by symbolism, expressing their disagreement with the prejudice of Australia’s marriage laws is an important symbolic gesture, and one that does make things that little bit easier (for this LGBTI Australian at least).

But, let’s face it, they shouldn’t have to. On their wedding day, cisgender heterosexual couples shouldn’t have to be making capital ‘P’ political statements, simply because successive Australian Governments have been homophobic in determining who can, and cannot, marry. After all, there is enough small ‘p’ politics at weddings – who is in the wedding party, who is invited/not invited, who sits where – already.

Of course, the only way to fix this is for Australia to finally catch up to the progressive world by introducing domestic marriage equality, thereby allowing couples like Steve and me to get married, and cisgender heterosexual couples to go back to arguing about what song should be the wedding waltz (come to think of it, with our music tastes I’m pretty sure Steve and I might ‘disagree’ about that too).

Until then, the fact that the ban on marriage equality makes attending weddings a bittersweet experience is definitely one of the things that I hate most about marriage inequality.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #4: Because Julia Gillard let me – and the LGBTI community – down

I don’t cry much. Well, that’s not entirely true. I cry – a lot – at emotionally manipulative movies (and it doesn’t really matter whether they’re good, bad or Sandra Bullock). But outside a darkened cinema I can count on two hands the number of times I have cried over the past twenty years. And almost never in front of other people.

So why then did I find myself gently sobbing, for about 15 minutes, in the middle of a large crowd in Sydney’s Hyde Park, on the afternoon of Saturday December 3rd, 2011? It wasn’t because it was almost the end of what had been an extremely long year professionally, nor was it because I had only had about two hours sleep (although both factors certainly didn’t help).

No, I found myself crying in public, in a way that I genuinely had very little control over, because that was the moment that I knew that, then already almost two years into my engagement to Steve, it was going to be several more years before we would be able to walk down the aisle, in our own country and surrounded by our family and friends.

December 3rd was the day the 2011 ALP National Conference decided that, as well as making support for marriage equality a part of the Party’s platform, it would fundamentally undermine that position by allowing any Labor Party member of parliament to vote against the equal right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people to get married. And with that decision they destroyed the prospects of marriage equality passing in that term, and made it very difficult in the following term too.

What has happened since – the defeat of Marriage Amendment Bills in September 2012, the defeat of the ALP Government in 2013, and the lack of priority and support for this issue by the iAbbott, and then Turnbull, Liberal-National Government in its first term – were all entirely foreseeable on that early summer’s day.

When I wrote this, more than two and a half years since that National Conference vote and then more than four and a half years into Steve and my engagement – with who knows how many more left – and the hurt and anger which I felt on that day is still with me, often not very far from the surface.

I have learnt to channel that disappointment to provide even more energy and impetus to my advocacy and activism for LGBTI rights, for young LGBTI people who need safe schools and an inclusive curriculum, for LGBTI refugees fleeing persecution but who Australia locks up and resettles in countries which criminalise homosexuality, and of course for marriage equality itself.

But something which we must also do is to hold to account those people who are responsible for the ongoing unjustified and, let’s face it, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and intersexphobic discrimination against LGBTI people in the Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961.

Almost 12 years into the ban on equal marriage and there is plenty of ‘accountability’, or blame, to go around. From John Howard, whose Coalition Government introduced the ban in 2004, to Mark Latham, who ensured the then Labor Opposition rolled over without anything resembling a fight, to all the conservative cheerleaders and News Ltd columnists (tautology, I know) who have opposed progress since then, to the Australian Christian Lobby whose entire existence appears dedicated to halting LGBTI rights, to Joe de Bruyn who sabotaged change within the ALP, his equivalents who have done the same in the Liberal and National Parties, the 98 members of the House of Representatives and 41 Senators who voted against LGBTI equality in parliament in September 2012, and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott who did all he could to defeat or at least delay marriage equality – all must accept their share of responsibility for the fact that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians continue to be 2nd class citizens under the law.

But there is one person I blame above all else, one person who I believe should assume the largest share of responsibility for the fact that Steve and I can still not get married, one person whose actions had the most potential to change that situation for the better, but who instead chose to do exactly the wrong thing, at exactly the wrong time: former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

On 15 November 2011, in the lead-up to that critical National Conference, Gillard announced her views in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. In that article, she chose to support a continued ban on marriage equality in the ALP platform, while also favouring a conscience vote, to be implemented by a rule change to make whatever policy position was ultimately adopted by Conference non-binding on MPs.

In doing so, Gillard chose what was the worst possible option, the one which would do the most damage to the short- and medium-term prospects of marriage equality in Australia.

That is not an over-statement. In practice, there were five main positions which Gillard could have chosen:

• Support for a platform change and a binding vote (the position of most marriage equality activists at the time)
• Support for platform change and a conscience vote (the position ultimately adopted by Conference)
• No position on either – and instead allowing Conference to decide both
• Opposition to platform change and support for a binding vote (which would at least have been consistent with the previous seven years, when all ALP MPs had been bound to vote against equality) or
• Opposition to platform change and support for a conscience vote (Gillard’s position).

If Gillard had chosen any of the four other options described, it is reasonably likely that both the platform change and a binding vote would have been successful at the National Conference, something which would have made marriage equality entirely achievable in 2012 in the process.

Instead, Gillard used her position as Prime Minister, and Leader of the Labor Party, to lean on people to ensure that, no matter what happened in terms of the policy, marriage equality would never be able to be implemented through a binding vote. She chose to actively exert the influence that she had because of her office to deny the right to marry to her fellow Australians on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

She went much, much further than simply advocating for a particular outcome: Gillard even chose to be the main sponsor of the motion in favour of a conscience vote, thus transforming the entire issue into a ‘test of leadership’. By stepping into the fray in this way, Gillard had turned the question of marriage equality into a question of loyalty which, for those of us who haven’t (yet) managed to suppress it, was the dominant theme – well, its absence was anyway – of the last term of ALP Government.

Thus, to stand up for the principles of fundamental equality and human rights was seen to be disloyal to the Party leader, and to simultaneously stand up for a binding vote – something which should be standard operating procedure for a collectivist party – was seen as doubly disloyal. And there were people inside the party who were making that very argument – that to support equality, and more importantly, to support a binding vote, was to be disloyal to Gillard – in the days leading up to the crucial ballot.

In the end, Gillard and her supporters couldn’t hold back progress altogether. There was enough support on Conference floor to achieve a resounding victory in terms of changing the platform to support marriage equality – while the vote wasn’t counted, it was estimated to be around 3 to 1 in favour. But her conscience vote resolution was also successful – by a much narrower margin, of 208 to 184.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard celebrates after a conscience vote is approved at ALP National Conference in December 2011, a move that destroyed any chance of marriage equality being passed in the last Parliament, and continues to make passage difficult today.

In short, it was (just) a bridge too far for the ALP National Conference to effectively ‘roll’ a sitting Prime Minister on both parts of the marriage equality equation.

If she had adopted any of the other positions outlined above, Conference would have only had to ‘defeat’ her once, or even not at all (if she had either done the right thing and supported platform change and a binding vote, or not taken a position to begin with). I genuinely believe that, had Gillard taken a different view, a binding vote would have been more likely than not – meaning that Steve and I might very well be married today.

And that is why, of all the people who have contributed to the current sorry state of affairs in Australia, where LGBTI relationships are deemed not worthy of the same recognition as cisgender heterosexual relationships, I blame Gillard the most – because her actions, above those of any other, were the most decisive in ensuring this 2nd class status was continued.

With the release of Gillard’s memoirs in late 2014, there was a concerted effort to glorify her Prime Ministership, and discuss only the positive accomplishments of her time in office – her rise as the first female Prime Minister, the introduction of a price on carbon, the establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and the introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in federal law for the first time. And I would be the first to admit that they were all great accomplishments.

But biography should never be hagiography. So we must not overlook her central role in the defeat of marriage equality, not just in the last term of parliament, but in the subsequent and also potentially in this one too, because she helped to ensure that ALP MPs would not be bound.

In this important respect, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard profoundly let down not just Steve and myself, but all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex Australians who believe that their relationships should be treated fairly and equally under the law. She was someone who should have been on our side, but instead actively worked against us.

She was wrong, and she wronged our community. Her actions were inexcusable, and I know that I and others won’t be accepting any excuses which she might attempt to proffer. Above all, what Julia Gillard did in late 2011 was unforgivable, and I for one will never forgive her. Nor should we ever forget.

[Postscript August 11th 2016: Of course, Julia Gillard has since been given strong competition for the title of “most disappointing Prime Minister on marriage equality”. And no, I’m not talking Tony Abbott, who, at the very least was widely understood to be opposed to LGBTI equality long before he took up the top job. Instead, I am talking about Malcolm Turnbull, who claims to support marriage equality – and even turned up to the 2016 Mardi Gras parade to ‘celebrate’ with the LGBTI community – but who continues to proceed with Abbott’s unnecessary, wasteful and divisive plebiscite. Just like Gillard, he was someone who many people believed would be on ‘our’ side – and yet he is spending political capital doing the bidding of those who would do us harm. Depending on what happens in the next 12 months, it might even turn out that Mr Turnbull snatches this particular title from Ms Gillard’s grasp. But for now, in mid 2016, it is still Gillard who I believe has caused the greatest delay to the happiness of tens of thousands of LGBTI Australian couples.]

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #5: Because there’s no intellectual stimulation in arguing with our opponents

There are some public policy issues which, as well as being important, can give rise to ‘intellectual stimulation’. By that I mean something that provokes informed debate, with multiple views, genuine disagreement about the best solution, sometimes even substantive and substantial arguments about the definition of the ‘problem’ itself.

Sadly, marriage equality is not one of these issues. Instead of being an exchange of ideas, for the most part the pro- and anti-marriage equality ‘debate’ is not really a debate at all. And it can’t be. Because it is impossible to have a debate when one side turns up without any arguments whatsoever on their side.

If the past twelve years have taught us anything, it is that anti-marriage equality campaigners are the intellectual Lilliputians of Australian public life. Sure they might have company out there on their ‘island of ignorance’ (hello anti-vaxers!), but it is difficult to think of many other public discussions in recent memory when so much has been said by people who had so little of substance to say.

It has become common to say that the argument for marriage equality has been run and won. And that’s true – except ‘won’ is an understatement. The defeat of anti-marriage equality campaigners, on the intellectual playing field at least, resembles nothing more than the 7:1 drubbing handed out by Germany to Brazil in the 2014 men’s football World Cup.

It is such a one-sided affair that, at times, you almost feel tempted to invoke the ‘mercy rule’ (which the opponents of marriage equality would probably reject anyway because it has too much in common philosophically with euthanasia).

In practice, the vacuity of anti-marriage equality campaigners, like Jim Wallace, or Lyle Shelton, or Cory Bernardi (and countless others), hasn’t stopped them from spouting the same nonsense time and time again over the past decade. It doesn’t matter that what they say on this subject has no credibility, they’ll keep saying it regardless.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby.

Lyle Shelton of the Australian Christian Lobby.

And that’s the frustrating thing – approaching twelve years since the original ban on same-sex marriage was introduced, and with the possibility of more before equality is finally legislated, it remains our responsibility to have the same public ‘debate’ with these people. To calmly refute the ridiculous claims that marriage equality will harm children, or impact on religious freedom, or that just because marriage has ‘traditionally’ been man-woman that it automatically must remain so in future.

And when I say ‘our’ responsibility, we should acknowledge that this burden has fallen particularly heavily on the shoulders of people like Australian Marriage Equality’s Alex Greenwich, and later Rodney Croome, and the Penny Wongs and Bob Browns of the political world, who have had to sit on countless panels and engage in countless debates with the Jim Wallaces and Lyle Sheltons of the Australian Christian Lobby, while suppressing the natural urge to react emotionally against the ignorance of what is being said. Hats off to them for doing what many of us might struggle to do.

Of course, this isn’t to say there is no intellectual stimulation in the issue of marriage equality per se. There certainly have been, and continue to be, interesting intellectual debates on this subject. It just happens that they are all held between people who already assume that everyone should be equal, irrespective of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

The debate about whether people should be aiming to make marriage inclusive or abolish it altogether, about whether there was strategic value in pursuing state-based same-sex marriage laws or not (or whether to support the Recognition of Foreign Marriages Bill 2014 or not), about where marriage equality sits on the overall list of priorities for the LGBTI community – all provide more intellectual succour than discussing the issue of marriage equality with a campaigner who seriously believes that marriage, under secular law, should be restricted to cisgender heterosexual couples.

It’s just a shame that we have been consigned to having to continue having this lop-sided non-debate. I for one can’t wait to discuss something a little bit more stimulating – and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

One final thing – you will hopefully notice that I have been careful to restrict these comments to anti-marriage equality campaigners, rather than all people who do not (or not yet anyway) support marriage equality. I am certainly not accusing all people who hold that view of being ‘ignorant’.

However, I am most definitely saying that, if you have carefully considered the question of marriage equality, and come to the conclusion that the only acceptable form of marriage is one man and one woman, and that you will campaign for that publicly, despite having no arguments on your side that withstand any kind of scrutiny, and against the equality and human rights of your fellow citizens, well, then there’s not much that you could say that is in any way worth listening to.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #6: Because it Lets MPs Off the Hook

This reason is closely related to number 7 (“Because Sometimes it Overshadows Other Important LGBTI Issues”), because it too derives from the fact that marriage equality now dominates the Australian LGBTI policy landscape.

As a result of this dominance, the position that Members of Parliament – indeed, all candidates for elected office – take on marriage equality has come to be the ‘primary’ LGBTI question which they are asked during election campaigns. Of course, in many ways that makes sense, given the high level of interest in this issue, both in our community and across society.

The answer that each MP gives can also be a useful pointer to how they may vote on other issues. An MP who says they support marriage equality is assumed to be more likely to support LGBTI anti-discrimination laws, or inclusive aged care services, or safe schools.

In this way, the simple yes/no, good/bad answer on marriage equality has the potential to serve as ‘shorthand’ for whether they are likely to vote yes or no on other reforms important to our community. In fact, I used this approach (analysing past votes on marriage equality) just this week in helping to estimate whether particular MPs might be more or less sympathetic on an education-related initiative.

But we run into significant difficulties when this question becomes the only question that we ask of our MPs, when the only calculation that we make about whether an MP is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on LGBTI issues is whether they support marriage equality or not.

First and foremost, if we only ask about marriage equality, then we are letting our MPs ‘off the hook’ in terms of their responsibilities to deal with the full range of issues which are important to and affect the LGBTI community.

If the only LGBTI topic they ever have to talk about is whether or not we can get married, then we are not making them talk about how to achieve equality of outcomes in health, in education and employment, we are not making them discuss how the state should support diversity in sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Second, we are letting our MPs off the hook because answering yes to marriage equality is, when you think about it, actually fairly easy. As the long and drawn out debate over the past 12 years has demonstrated, there really isn’t much of a debate to be had at all – either you support the equal recognition of our relationships, or you do not (for more on that particular issue, see 10 Things #5).

There are many other LGBTI issues which are either more complex (for example, what are the best or most effective ways to reduce the over-representation of LGBTI young people in terms of mental health issues, depression and suicide), or which many of our MPs have never had to genuinely turn their minds to (such as where limits on religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws should be drawn). To say yes to marriage equality is simple – we should be making our MPs work a little bit harder than that in order to get our support.

Third, by not asking about a range of issues, we run the risk of letting off the hook those MPs who are supportive of marriage equality but who do not support other LGBTI issues. For example, it is possible to support inclusive marriage laws but also to support the exclusion of same-sex couples from the right to adopt or to access assisted reproductive technology (just ask Portugal, where gay couples can marry but not adopt or use ART).

It is also possible (and in practice it is far too common) for MPs to support marriage equality, but to simultaneously believe that religious organisations should be able to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* people, in schools, in health care, in employment, in pretty much any context. In this light, the simple yes/no, good/bad ‘shorthand’ fails us – because it is possible to support marriage equality, but not support LGBTI equality more broadly.

Conversely, it is possible to oppose marriage equality but be supportive on other LGBTI reforms. The best example of this was former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her position on marriage equality – to oppose it, while also supporting a conscience vote inside the Labor Party, thereby ruining any chance of its passage in the last parliament – was unconscionable, and, from my perspective at least, can never be forgiven (for more on that particular issue, see 10 Things #4).

And yet, Gillard’s period of leadership saw more pro-LGBTI reforms than most, if not all, of her predecessors. The introduction of LGBTI anti-discrimination protections in Commonwealth law for the first time, progressive Guidelines on the Recognition of Sex and Gender, funding for the QLife counselling initiative, PBS listing for Gardasil vaccinations for boys and a national LGBTI Ageing and Aged Care Strategy, among other things, all happened during her (brief) tenure.

All of which goes to show that the position of our MPs on LGBTI issues is much more complicated than a single question, and much more layered than any simple yes/no answer could hope to capture. Marriage equality supporters can be poor on other reforms. Alternatively, MPs who oppose marriage equality can be supporters on other important issues.

Which means we do ourselves a great disservice if the only thing we ever talk about with MPs is whether they support our equal right to get married. We cannot, we must not, let them off the hook by allowing them to ignore the full breadth of LGBTI issues. We need to be better at putting more questions to them, and above all, we need to be better at asking more of them.

10 Things I Hate About Marriage Inequality. #7: Because Sometimes it Overshadows Other Important LGBTI Issues

In a similar way to reason #9 (“Because sometimes I feel guilty for having #firstworldproblems”), one of the things that frustrates me about marriage equality is that this issue has come to dominate domestic LGBTI politics to such an extent that it can, and has, overshadowed other important issues.

Now, that is not necessarily a criticism of marriage equality campaigners, including Australian Marriage Equality. They have done a fantastic job of promoting marriage equality and ensuring that, over the past 12 years, it has gone from what could be described as a ‘minority concern’, to one of widespread acceptance across the Australian population (even if our parliamentarians are taking far too long to catch up).

It is also not to dismiss the fact marriage equality is an important issue in and of itself – obviously, as someone who is engaged themself, I understand the emotional pull at the heart of this issue which compels so many people to take action (and any regular reader of this blog would note the high volume of posts which relate to the denial of this right, not just in Australia but around the world).

But, and this is a big but, I am not sure that this completely justifies the disproportionate attention, and in some cases, disproportionate energy, which has been given to the issue of marriage equality by our community, especially over the past four or five years.

That statement might be a little bit controversial, so allow me to provide some context before you make up your mind. Let’s compare, for example, the community response (both our own, and the broader Australian community) to marriage equality with that regarding three other important LGBTI issues.

In April 2012, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs inquiry into two marriage equality bills conducted an online survey – to which 276,437 Australians responded (including more than 177,000 people in favour).

In subsequent months, the related Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs Inquiry received a record number of formal submissions – approximately 79,000, with roughly 46,400 people taking the time to write in support of a Marriage Act that does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status.

Around the same time, the Gillard Government was preparing legislation which would, for the first time ever, provide anti-discrimination protections under Commonwealth law on those exact same grounds.

These protections were contained, along with a range of other measures, in the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination (HRAD) Bill 2012. The Exposure Draft of that legislation was considered by the same Senate Committee, and a still ‘healthy’ 3000 submissions were made (although, it has to be pointed out, many did not address the specific issue of LGBTI anti-discrimination but were in fact about other aspects of the Bill).

The HRAD Bill was eventually replaced by the Sex Discrimination Amendment (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status) Bill 2013, which, as the name suggests, focused exclusively on LGBTI protections. When it too was considered by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, in June 2013, just 90 standalone submissions were made. Nine. Zero. Or about 0.11% of the total submissions on marriage equality, to the same Committee, just 12 months prior.

To choose another example – during 2012 and 2013 the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) drafted the national Health & Physical Education curriculum, something which had the potential (or should have anyway) to help young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students in classrooms around the country.

Except, as I have written previously, the first draft of that curriculum did not even mention the words lesbian, gay or bisexual, erroneously included trans* and intersex in the same definition (and even then only referred to them in the glossary!) and essentially ignored sexual health and HIV.

That draft was open for public consultation from December 2012 to April 2013. In four months, 279 online surveys were completed, as well as 99 formal written submissions. Removing submissions from organisations (mostly from non-LGBTI health and education groups), there were exactly 14 submissions from individuals to that public consultation. One. Four.

In 2014, the HPE curriculum, together with all other subject areas, were referred by the then Commonwealth Education Minister, the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, to homophobe Kevin Donnelly for yet another review. The grand total number of written submissions to that inquiry – of which only a small number would have focused on LGBTI exclusion from Health & Physical Education – was approximately 1,500.

One final example. Again, at the same time as the marriage equality parliamentary debates and the Sex Discrimination Act inquiry were going on, the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs was holding its own inquiry on the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of people with disabilities in Australia. One of the key issues examined by that inquiry – perhaps not to begin with, but certainly by the end, primarily as a result of the hard work of groups like OII Australia – was the involuntary or coerced sterilisation of intersex people.

Now, the intersex community might be small in number, even within our own community (see Notes) – but there is no denying this issue looms large in terms of all of the human rights abuses perpetrated against any member of the LGBTI community in Australia, at any point in our history. So, it was perhaps disappointing that the entire Senate inquiry – and not simply for the Report focusing on intersex issues – received just 91 standalone submissions.

But, as we have seen above, that is simply one part of a frustrating overall trend. The entire number of submissions to two LGBTI anti-discrimination inquiries, two reviews of the HPE curriculum, and an inquiry examining the coerced sterilisation of intersex people, is less than the number of submissions to one state-based same-sex marriage inquiry (NSW, in March 2013, received 7,586 submissions), let alone the 79,000 submissions to the 2012 Senate marriage inquiry.

Of course, simply counting submissions in this way doesn’t necessarily reflect other work undertaken, by a range of groups, with respect to anti-discrimination protections, the curriculum or intersex rights – much of which happens behind the scenes.

As indicated above, the high volume of submissions to marriage equality inquiries is also a testament to the hard work of groups like Australian Marriage Equality (and others, including GetUp!), in terms of mobilising the community.

There are also other advantages enjoyed by the issue of marriage equality (it is part of a clear, single-issue global movement, in recent years at least has emerged as part of the cultural zeitgeist, it is a much simpler yes/no policy question), not enjoyed by some of the other issues identified.

And it is much easier to report on – the images of brides and grooms either being denied legal equality, or enjoying newly-won rights, makes marriage equality a very ‘photogenic’ issue. The fact our opponents have given consistently outrageous comments also makes reporting on ‘conflict’ in this area much more straightforward for journalists.

It is even arguable that the disproportionate focus on marriage equality may actually be necessary in order to achieve such a significant and, until recently, almost unimaginable, social change.

And yet, when I reflect on the level of commitment which goes into marriage equality, compared to other important LGBTI issues, I find myself sometimes lamenting that we do not put the same level of energy, and dedicate the same level of time and resources, into the latter.

So, by all means I encourage you to support – or continue to support – the important work that Australian Marriage Equality does (to find out how to get involved, go here).

But, at the same time, it would be great if more people would also support some of the other organisations that, in addition to working on marriage equality, also advocate on a range of other LGBTI issues, which are no less important to the long-term health and well-being of our community. They include:

The NSW Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby

The Victorian Gay & Lesbian Rights Lobby (<http://www.vglrl.org.au )

Transgender Victoria (<http://www.transgendervictoria.com ) and

OII Australia – Intersex Australia (<http://oii.org.au )

Those are four groups that I am or have been involved in, or have worked with – but there are a range of other LGBTI advocacy groups in states and territories around the country worthy of your support. Because, while marriage equality might be an important thing, it is not and never has been the only thing.

The national Health & Physical Education curriculum will have an impact on young LGBTI people for years, if not decades.

The national Health & Physical Education curriculum will have an impact on young LGBTI people for years, if not decades.

Notes

  • The reference to the comparative size of the intersex population is absolutely not meant to suggest that the issues it confronts does not count (as a member of another, albeit slightly larger, minority group, that is obviously not a rational position to hold), but it has been included here because it could partly explain why less people would have made a submission to this inquiry. Nevertheless, the scale of injustice involved in the sterilisation (and other unnecessary medical interventions) of intersex people without consent, in Australia, TODAY, means it is something we all should be concerned about.
  • It should also be noted that, when people were presented with a simple way of expressing their concern about the national Health & Physical Education curriculum – via a Change.org petition – at least 6000 people added their signature in less than a month. Obviously, people do care about other issues, including those listed above, so different groups also need to learn better how to engage on these issues, and translate that innate or latent support into concrete actions.